For Those Of Us With Body Issues, The 90s Yearbook Trend Ain't Fun

"It's strange that looking through the proverbial looking glass at a version of myself makes me feel this way, as if this person I am looking at is unspoilt — and I am the rotten apple staring back."
The author at 17 vs the AI generated year book photo
Katie Baskerville
The author at 17 vs the AI generated year book photo

Like all teenagers, I so desperately wanted to fit in and to enter adulthood feeling attractive and popular. Cringe, I know. The 90s and 00s did a number on us. They were rife with body shaming ads and articles, slut shaming was everywhere and you couldn’t get away from lad-culture.

My only knowledge of feminism was screaming ‘girl power’. I didn’t realise I had no such thing. I was more afraid of cellulite than I was of a lack of women’s liberty – so attaining any level of sustainable self-esteem was nigh impossible, let alone having a sense of style, confidence and value system that wasn’t based on my level of perceived attractiveness. The world brought me up to be that way.

At the time, it felt like all we did as girls was wish we were thinner, prettier and more fuckable. To some degree, I suppose those feelings never really went away when I entered adulthood. Even now, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, there’s a box labelled “do not open”, where inside is a wash of toxic leftovers from a decade of heroin chic, fatphobia and overt nastiness to sexually liberated women.

Regardless, it’s that same box that whispered to me twenty years later and told me to spend the £3-whatever-it-was to have a yearbook photo I could be proud of and not cringe at. And so, this is how I found myself one of the many people suckered into the EPIK app’s AI yearbook trend.

The hashtag #aiyearbook has garnered 466.5M views on TikTok, with users fawning over the fashion, hair and stylised shoots. Instagram feeds (mine included) feature carousels loaded with pictures showing picture-perfect best sides and uncanny likenesses to younger versions of you.

Ethics of AI artwork aside, I found the experience oddly affirming. But I also found myself tangled in emotions I’d not felt for over a decade or so. Looking back at these uncanny faces that are me — and are not me – the emotions that rise are complex.

The lack of the app’s body diversity hit a raw nerve when I was faced with a version of myself I recognised. She was someone in the real world who had experienced years upon years of bulimia.

Since being in recovery and gaining weight, I’ve not really been able to “see” myself. Yet, here I was. Or at least, the version of me I always wanted to be. I wanted to bark at it, like a dog in a mirror. She frightens me.

What is perhaps most jarring, triggering even, is how I wish I could be this pretty and this young – my heart shamefully aches for it. It’s strange that looking through the proverbial looking glass at a version of myself makes me feel this way, as if this person I am looking at is unspoilt — and I am the rotten apple staring back.

Truthfully, I am jealous of these version of me who are thinner. My face, now plastered onto adolescent bodies, I see what I could have looked like if I had — what? Been born to different parents? Had different genetics? No matter the ‘if’, these images prey on an insecurity that lies so deep within me. And, no doubt countless others.

Social media is linked to causing body dysmorphia and eating disorders. This trend feels like an extension of the toxicity surrounding filters. I feel like I’ve attained some sort of warped virtual retribution for being an unathletic, boxy-framed girl with large breasts.

I’ve somehow escaped my dorkyness and been one of those girls who blossomed, (whatever that means), without the braces and pendulous breasts. It’s dangerous thinking and I’m sad that it’s brought some joy to me to see myself as I always wished I’d looked. And — if I’m honest with myself, sometimes how I fantasise about looking now.

This obsession with youth and beauty feels engrained in our society. Only last week, Pamela Anderson decided to be makeup-free so as ”not to be in compete with the clothes″, and this has transformed into a piece of activism.

Women with grey hair are walking the runway at fashion week — and, while none of this would have been tolerated, let alone possible some twenty years ago, this lingering fear of becoming old is so resonant. These acts are not radical, and yet they are so seldom seen in society they’re considered groundbreaking.

Not to get all Barbie, but the way women are demonised and sanctified for opposing qualities is an impossible equation. We are vilified for our prudishness, but esteemed for our virtue. We are expected to age gracefully, yet show no signs of ageing. We are supposed to gratify and adhere to heteronormative views on sex and pleasure, but not explore what sexuality is for us. And so on, and so forth.

Watching more and more people across social media engage in this trend, which I know is supposed to be a little bit of fun in an otherwise dire time, I can’t help but feel robbed of body acceptance — again.

None of this is real, except for the emotional response I’m having to seeing versions of myself that I could have liked. Maybe I have a lot more self-love to uncover. Maybe these things should come with a warning.

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